UNIVERSITY PARK -- The mall is open.
Hundreds of shoppers filled The Mall at University Town Center Thursday morning to be among the first inside more than 100 stores and restaurants in University Park.
"Let's go shopping," the crowd roared, led by Robert Taubman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Taubman Centers, the mall's developer.
The Mall at UTC, off University Parkway and Cattlemen Road, is the only newly constructed enclosed mall to open in the United States this year and the first for Taubman in the United States since 2012.
The mall features stunning LED light shows at night, with natural light peering through the 1,500-foot-long skylight during the day, and retailers from Apple to Z Gallerie.
"We know that people value convenience and are attracted to exciting and inviting spaces. Just look around you," said Taubman, who was joined by brother and Chief Operating Officer William Taubman, and father and founder Arthur Taubman on stage.
The mall was conceived more than 10 years ago at a Benderson Development Co.
meeting when Nathan Benderson, then 85, had the Interstate 75 and University Parkway corner on his board's agenda, recalled Randy Benderson, now president of Benderson Development. Nathan Benderson died at age 94 in April 2012, months before the mall's groundbreaking.
"He wanted us to understand that University and 75 was much more special than any of us could have imagined," Benderson said. "He thought our community needed a premier shopping mall and there was no better place than right here."
Benderson forged its first partnership in a project by going with Taubman Centers as a 50-50 partner after Forbes Co. left the project during the Great Recession, when the mall was supposed to open in 2010.
"Sorry partners, but none of us have to go to that great mall in Tampa anymore," Benderson joked about the Taubman-managed International Plaza.
Sarasota County Commission Chairman Charles Hines said he recalls as a child when his mother would have to drive from Venice to Sarasota just to visit Sears and Maas Brothers.
"This mall is really just an example of the evolution that our county is going through," Hines said.
Whether for Venice or Bradenton residents, the mall will be a destination and not so much a place to just roam.
Outside of the east entrance, Teddee Woodsworth waited for the doors to open with her friends, Alexa Chitpasong and Jen Harron. Woodsworth, a Northwest Bradenton resident, had a singular focus.
"Saks -- it's the only reason I'm here," Woodsworth said.
Cassie Neeley, 13, was with her grandmother Elaine Imboden, both of Sarasota, scoping out Vera Bradley before the doors opened. They showed up at 7 a.m. to beat the traffic, which didn't have any major issues Thursday morning.
"We never had a big mall like this," Cassie said. "It had a lot of really nice stores."
More of those nice stores designed to attract oodles of teenagers like Cassie will be on their way. Charlotte Russe, Fit2Run and Tory Burch will open in the spring, and H&M will open in about a month. Other stores coming soon include Anthropologie, Talbots, Kiehl's and Invicta.
Local store owners -- Jackie Z and Oil and Vinegar -- were sleep deprived as they raced to make the grand opening, but they crossed the finish line and had a successful opening day Thursday.
Apple of their eye
The biggest crowd during the opening was in front of the Apple Store, which is the 17th in Florida. It's a long time coming after Apple once committed to Westfield Southgate mall in Sarasota before pulling out during the recession.
Emily Marhold left Parrish at 4:30 a.m. Thursday to be the first in line at the Apple Store inside The Mall at University Town Center.
That's awfully early considering there's an Apple Store that opens at 10 a.m. at Westfield Brandon, but it was worth the early morning wakeup -- especially because she could be with her mom, Maureen Marhold, who is a superintendent for the mall.
What was she in line for?
"A MacBook Pro," she said, for homework at Southeast High School.
Marhold was one of well more than 100 people that filed along a roped line stretched to the second level as the Apple Store opened at 10 a.m. with the Mall at UTC.
The cheers from Apple employees and fans could be heard from the grand court during the opening ceremonies.
Kelly and Jordan Moss made sure they stood in line to nab an iPhone 6.
"If I would have bought it anywhere else, I would have to wait six weeks to get it," Jordan Moss said.
At lunchtime, a line continued to form. No matter your title, waiting was mandatory.
"I went to the Apple Store and there was an hour and a half wait," said Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. "I'm very excited about the opening because it means 2,000 permanent paying jobs for Manatee and Sarasota counties. This mall is over the top, high quality. People are excited about it. They don't have to drive to Brandon or Tampa. They've got everything here. Florida is definitely on the rebound from the recession."
More retail on the way
Now the mall is open, it will be the building that ties all the UTC-branded properties together and spurs more development.
"It's a great addition to the property, but also it's a great addition to the area," said Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson. "You can see it's the place to be."
At The District at University Town Center, Jos. A Bank opened Thursday on Cattlemen Road, and Blaze Pizza will open Dec. 1, Mathes said. Panera Bread will open Nov. 5, while the AT&T store, DSW Shoes and Noodles & Company will open in the spring.
Benderson is planning three more retail buildings similar to the Jos. A Bank building and a groundbreaking is planned for the Hilton Homewood Suites.
"We're going to start on that very soon," he said.
Also, more retail and office space is planned on the east side of the mall for The District East at UTC, which is planned to start in 2015. Benderson is seeking Sarasota County approval for an additional 600,000 square feet retail and 100,000 square feet of more office space.
-- Herald reporters Kate Irby and Kathryn Moschella contributed to this story
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.